Nuruddin Farah’s Maps review: The tragedy of a woman doomed to love wrong men


Nuruddin Farah’s Maps, a soul shattering story that scrutinises the ill-treatment of women in a patriarchal and war-torn society, Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy reviews

If there were one review I would rather not write, it would be this one on Nuruddin Farah’s Maps.

I remember that I once found it amusing hearing a professor of mine lamenting his inability to complete Buchi Emecheta’s Joys of Motherhood due to the outburst of emotions welled up by the events in the story. Well, it appears nemesis has come for me in form of Nuruddin Farah’s Maps; the fictional novel is such a powerful and grief-stricken one that leaves one feeling sad every time it is recalled.

More than anything, it demonstrates the power of words on paper by showing how a writer can manipulate our emotions through words and force us to empathise with their characters. If this were all there was to the novel, it would still be a powerful one, but there is more.

The tale

Nuruddin Farah’s Maps tells the tale of Misra, an Ethiopian-Amhara divorcee, who comes to live among the Somalis before the Ethio-Somali war of 1977-78. Misra had been abducted as a young girl by a Somali warrior following a tribal raid only to later become the inheritance of a wealthy Somali after the death of the warrior.

The wealthy Somali grooms the young girl to become a member of his harem, but she fails to come to terms with seeing a man she has come to accept as a father to be a husband. Misra kills him and absconds to Kallafo, an area in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia where she works as a maid.

Misra, one evening, finds a baby lying beside its not-too-long-ago deceased mother in a dark room she walks into and immediately forms a bond with the child. The child’s father has died some days earlier and Misra decides to mother the child as her own.

Seeing that the baby takes to no one else, Misra is allowed custody of the child. As the baby grows into a young boy now known as Askar, tensions between independent Somalia and Ethiopia begin to rise over the Ogaden region, ceded to Ethiopia by the British. The trouble is that the Ogaden region is occupied by Somalis who see Somalia as their motherland and yearn to be part of Somalia, but Ethiopia lays claim to this land by conquest and an Anglo-Afro treaty.

In a bid to reclaim or liberate what it considers a pure ‘Somali land’, Somalia launches an offensive against Ethiopia. This new development does not bode well for Misra, knowing fully well that she is of Amhara and Oromo tribes, the tribes the Somalis would be fighting against and as the conflict continues to escalate, so does her fears of what fate may become hers.

The tribulations

Meanwhile at this time, young Askar reaches his teens and emigrates to Mogadishu where he lives with his avuncular uncle, Hilaal, and his wife, Salaado. News coming from Ogaden to Mogadishu is that the Somalis have lost the war at the brink of victory to the Ethiopians assisted by the Soviet and Cuban armies. The Somalis feel humiliated by this defeat and this worsens the situation for Misra.

For falling in love with an Ethiopian army officer (who she comes to later discover to be her biological brother), she is accused by her jilted lover, Aw Adan, of being a traitor and fingered as the one who reveals the secret camps of the Somali guerilla force, a revelation which leads to the death of over 600 young soldiers.

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Although Misra denies this to her adopted son and anyone who cares to listen, she is raped by seven young members of the Somali guerrilla force, made an outcast in the society she had come to identify as home, and considered an enemy numero uno by all Somalis who hear of the event.

The crossroad

Her only option appears to be to seek out the now young man (Askar) she has mothered; if the world rejects her, at least he wouldn’t. She departs for Mogadishu under a false name to avoid being attacked by her detractors. But Askar is aware of her coming and believes she must really have betrayed his people and he believes the right thing to do is to avenge the death of his people by killing her.

Uncle Hilaal however advises that he seeks the truth first which he does and halts action. However, Misra takes ill and while receiving treatment for breast cancer, she is identified by other Somali men who abduct her from the hospital and murder her by mutilating her heart and her body disposed in the sea!

The 1977 Ethio-Somali war

Indeed, Misra’s tale is one of horror and pain and her only crime is loving the wrong men. With the Ethio-Somali war as a background plot, Nuruddin Farah’s Maps explores the terrible fate of women in a war-torn patriarchal society.

As an historical background, Somalis felt cheated and deprived of the choice of determining their own future when Britain committed an all too familiar colonial error by handing over a Somali speaking region to Ethiopia, there were cases of ethnic subjugation and domination of Somali people by the Ethiopian government.

Somalis in the Ogaden were told that to secure their future in Ethiopia, they all had to learn, write, and speak Amharic which was a minority language at this time. A 1956 speech by the then Emperor Haile Salassie addressed to the Ogaden region and quoted in the novel goes thus:

“Go to schools, my people. For there, you will have a good chance to learn to read and write Amharic. Only then will you be able to take over the various positions in the central government administration. And remember this: lack of knowledge of Amharic, which is the national language of Ethiopia, will prove a great barrier to economic improvement and individual and communal betterment. Learn to read and write Amharic. It’ll do you a lot of good.” (97)

To achieve this aim, children below the age of six were forcefully taken from nomadic camps to schools in Upper Ethiopia where they lose contact with one another and other Somali speakers.

Situations like the above necessarily led to agitations for the reunification of all Somali speaking regions, including the Northern Frontier District (NFD), today known as the North Eastern Province, allotted to Kenya by the British colonial government.

The Ethiopian government was not prepared to let go and frowned at the Somali agitators; it targeted leaders of such movement for imprisonment and elimination. This prepared the ground for the Somali invasion of Ethiopia in 1977.

Women and children as collateral damages

In Maps, Farah exposes the societal instability and fragmentation that are often the consequences of political conflict and war. Fathers and sons are torn from their families, women are raped and widowed while children become orphans.

Askar, for example, becomes an orphan before his existence as a new member of the corporeal realm is discovered. His father had been executed for agitating against the Ethiopian government. Karin’s husband also suffers from spinal injury sustained while in detention for agitating for the reunification of all Somali-speaking territories.

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And when the war finally starts, they are huge loses on both sides. Farah’s Maps mentions that the Somali side loses many of its young men and many families are forced to become refugees in Mogadishu.

The review

Nuruddin Farah’s Maps might have started as the story of Askar, an orphaned infant found and adopted by Misra following his mother’s death not long after birth, but it ends as the story of Misra whose life is made miserable (pun intended) by the men in it. Askar’s role, in the story was mainly that of a narrator as he is more of an observer than an actor.

Not being a Somali is an automatic denial for Misra to mother the newly born Askar, despite the fact that she and the child have immediately taken a liking to each other, but she overcomes this by granting Askar’s uncle (Qorrax) clandestine visits to her bed. She also puts off marrying Aw Adan in order to focus all her energy and time on Askar.

She was there all the way for Askar and it is very unfortunate that Askar finds it difficult to believe the one who has truly loved him and mothered him from the time he was helpless. That Askar is content to share her story rather than seek redress or recompense, no matter how elusive, is disappointing – he let her traducers, rapists and murderers get away with their crimes.

You may argue that there is little Askar could have done to save her and he does try his best trying to search for her, but I am certain Askar would have gone hell for her if she were his biological mother. If every other person saw Misra as different, the intrinsic connection between them should make him see otherwise, but he places premium of tribal loyalty, even above maternal ties.

Misra is representative of the untold hardships faced by women in a patriarchal and war-torn society. In such societies, women suffer and are treated as the second fiddle, they are property to be owned and disposed off as their male relative wishes, and they are blamed for any mishap in the society.

Misra is a product of a contracted marriage for a man desperate for a male child, she is subjected to marriage against her wish, horrible lies are told against her by her estranged lover and they are believed without her being given the opportunity to defend herself. She is also raped and murdered in revenge for a crime she knows naught of. Uncle Qorrax, another example of male dominance, also marries at will, treats his wives awfully, and takes advantage of Misra’s love for his nephew to get in her bed. This is perhaps why Hilaal, in defense of Misra, laments to Askar thus:

“Women as whores, women as witches, women as traitors of their blood, women as lovers of men from the enemy camp—throughout history, men have blamed women for the ill luck they themselves have brought on their heads. Women are blamed for every misfortune which has befallen man from the first day of creation, including his fall from heaven. Woman is said to have betrayed man at the first opportunity. Throughout history, Askar.”

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Salaado said, “Let him be, please.”

“No, no, please,” said Askar to Salaado.

Hilaal continued, looking from Askar to Salaado, “You’ve no proof, and you’ve asked for no proof. Men have always done that. They’ve condemned unjustly and asked for no evidence. What do you say to that?” (197-8)

Nuruddin Farah elucidating a point
Nuruddin Farah elucidating a point

To Farah, men do not need to feel threatened by women’s dominance and he demonstrates this using Hilaal and Salaado’s marriage where Salaado who is the wife is the dominant partner and the one who takes on roles that are traditionally expected of the male in their marriage such as driving and vehicle maintenance.

Further, Hilaal shows undying love for his wife by having a vasectomy, to avoid being forced into taking a second wife by his relatives, after Salaado undergoes an oophorectomy due to complications. Theirs is, to Farah, the picture of an ideal marriage or a male-female relationship which can serve as a foil to the marriage of Uncle Qorrax and his wives which is abusive and patriarchal.

I would like to think that Nuruddin Farah expected to come out with a historical novel, recording an important event in the lives of Ogaden Somalis and this is perhaps why the novel initially focuses on the physical and mental development of Askar from infancy to his late teens, but the story veers away from this to tell a more tragic tale of Misra, the Amhara lady doomed to love the wrong men.

I would also point out that the novelist spent a long time dragging back and forth on Askar’s mental development as if preparing him for a great task only to leave him a story teller in the end. However, there is a lot to be discovered should we subject the story to psychological analyses, especially by examining the development of young Askar’s violent language, his violent dreams, and sudden illnesses as presages to major misfortunes in the story.

The story is narrated from three vantage points, first, second, and third persons. But the concept of interchanging the narrative voices makes the storyline a bit confusing, especially in the initial chapters. I consider this an unnecessary experimentation, especially as Askar is still the rallying point for each voice.

With the Ogaden agitation cum war as a background, Nuruddin Farah’s Maps scrutinises the ill treatment of women in a patriarchal and war-torn society. The tale is a soul shattering tragedy that leaves the reader wallowing in sadness at the fate of the protagonist, Misra. If there is a novel I shall neither like to ever read again nor be compelled to narrate another time, it is this one and it is not because it is a bad story but because I believe no one should have to experience the emotions invoked by Misra’s story twice.

© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2022


Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy holds a degree in English language and literary studies. He is a short story writer, copy editor, book reviewer, literary critic, poet, and essayist. He teaches English as a Foreign Language in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

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